The eye doctor told me I have a convergence problem at my last checkup. I couldn’t help myself: I burst into laughter. He looked at me sideways and spoke slowly, “Are you sure you understand me?”
How do you explain to a doctor that convergence is a lifelong struggle that goes far beyond bringing eye muscles together to focus on a single point? Constantly, I try to bring everything in my life together into a clear, cohesive, whole.
Take the coast for example. Every time I step off the plane, I fall in wonder all over again, not with an exotic beach vacation, but with the smells and sounds of a former home. I walked through Cartagena’s centre at sunset, listening through the golden light for all the sounds I didn’t know I missed: the crack of a wooden mallet breaking up a chunk of ice, a hearty slap of two palms meeting in a enthusiastic handshake on a street corner, the whiz of blenders at juice stands, a clip-clop of horse hooves and tour guide explanations, contrasted with bus drivers yelling destinations out of open doors, roaring past in a cloud of diesel fumes. Cartagena feels like the first step in going home, except this time, I could enjoy fully enjoy the city centre without feeling the pressure to head to the bus terminal to go back to my tiny house in Mampujan.
My favourite time in Mampujan was the calm of a quiet late afternoon. Another day was done and the light made everything beautiful. This trip, I again watched the Montes de Maria deepen into blue and the fields to green gold. At 5 pm, the cattle egrets fly in to roost. Everything moves with a natural slow grace, the birds swooping low over the water, a woman and her children, leading their donkeys home. I catch my breath at the beauty, not because coastal life is simple, but rather, layered with moments. This house, bathed in evening, where I slept in Ricardo’s car the night before the march. This rise in the road, where I ran ahead to photograph a long line of campesinos.
In El Carmen, I slept below a banner filled with signatures from the Montes de Maria. In March, communities and organizations from the region gathered together and declared their own intentions of peace, whether or not the government and the FARC also would come to an agreement. As we walk down the new road to the lake, Larisa tells me about the changes she has seen in the last few years: people from El Carmen spending their weekends visiting communities deeper in the mountains and city folk buying rural property. Slowly, memories of conflict terror are being layered over with afternoons spent at the creek. Challenges abound (palm oil plantations, corruption, water disputes), but life continues to move into new possibilities.
Every time I left Mampujan, often to Cartagena for the weekend, I made it a point of honour to let people know that I lived in the Montes de Maria. I refused to be lumped in with the other sweaty gringos drinking limonada de coco and planning their next beach escapade. I might also be taking photos of the dancers in the plaza, but I belonged. This time, I found myself not caring. No matter where I go or return, this place is now part of who I am in a way that I don’t need to prove. I don’t actually belong but my memories are tied to the possibilities of this specific place.
Yet, I didn’t visit Mampujan at all. I told myself that there was no time, but honestly, the thought of returning feels more daunting every year. I prefer to look at former neighbours’ photos of the community on facebook then exert the social energy required to walk the streets in person. Walking through El Carmen with Larisa and celebrating new grocery stores and paved roads is much less personal than getting off the bus at the entrance to Mampujan and figuring out what to say to the group of men gathered at the fruit stand. All of this is perhaps simply a way to say that life was hard in Mampujan and, almost four years later, those memories of being uncomfortable still linger, in the midst of the moments of joy that life in Mampujan also brought.
I love the coast, but often in small glimpses, filtered through good coffees and laughing conversations in Larisa’s home about our time as Seeders. The problem of nostalgia, however, is that it is simply too easy to avoid wrestling with the challenges of the past. I prefer to cling to memories of marches and meetings, rather than being forced to deal with the hard work of cross cultural relationships and the awkwardness of never fitting in. I don’t want to wear sunset coloured glasses, but I do want to embrace the future.
My doctor has prescribed eye therapy. For the next five weeks, I will be staring at a pencil, focusing as it draws closer and then further away from my nose. Focusing in on a central point in my life isn’t quite that easy. I try to hold things loosely, to remember that moving forward is a good thing. Just as peace processes move ahead on the coast, I am also not stationary. Not everything needs or does come together, either, in real life. More than anything, it was a good choice to move away and always, always, a good choice to go back.